Life, Libertine, and the pursuit of happiness

I wonder if Neal Brown’s mom ever admonished him to stop playing with his food when he was a kid. If she did, she must be eating her words right about now. As chef-owner of L’Explorateur (closed. boo.), Pizzology and now the Libertine, creative doesn’t even begin to describe the things this guy can do with food and drink.

 

Brown’s Indy fans have been anxiously awaiting the opening of his new speakeasy-ish downtown cocktail bar for what seems like ages. And finally, the wait is over. The Libertine opened about a month ago in a little storefront on Washington Street and has been racking up the raves ever since. I went last night with a small group of girlfriends to test the waters. I must admit to being a little nervous, because I’d been looking forward to it so much. My hopes were high and I reeeeeeaally didn’t want to be disappointed. Happily, I wasn’t. The Libertine more than lived up to my expectations, and I can personally attest that all the accolades are well deserved.

We arrived around 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. It was busy, but not absolutely crammed as I’d feared it might be. The Libertine doesn’t take reservations, and we were told the wait for a table would be around 45 minutes. Fortunately, the restaurant provides cocktail service at a couple of tall standing-room-only tables near the front where you can wait. As it turned out, we were seated within 15 minutes, before the first round of drinks even arrived.

The Libertine isn’t large; basically, it’s just one long narrow dining room. The bar runs the length of the space, fronting a wall of cubbyholes that’s been partially filled with bottles, food products, cookbooks and bric-a-brac. A row of four-top tables fills the other side separated from the bar by a long aisle. The décor is dark, sleek and sophisticated, heavy on IKEA-style touches like groovy hanging light fixtures over the tables and what looks like white tree branches growing through the wall at the back by the restrooms.

The menu isn’t big, either, but it requires some serious consideration just because everything sounds so unusual. I mean this in the best possible way. At the Libertine, cocktails deserve equal (if not greater) billing to the food, commandeering more than the top half of the one-page bill of fare. And what cocktails they are… Brown has taken the same innovative approach he uses with food and applied it to alcohol to turn out some really distinctive combinations. Even the names are clever. “Yes, I’d like a Dirty Little Whirlwind, please.” Or, “Could you bring me another Truth and Reconciliation when you get a minute?” You can get beer and wine here as well, but you’re really doing yourself a disservice if you don’t try at least one mixed drink.

the Seelbach Cocktail

I’m trying to train for an upcoming bourbon-tasting media tour in Kentucky, so I ordered a little number called the Seelbach Cocktail, named for the fancy historic hotel in Louisville. Served in a sexy curvy stemmed glass, the drink consists of vintage bourbon with orange juice, lemon juice, a splash of fizzy Prosecco and a strip of orange peel. I enjoyed it so much, I ordered a second. Icy cold, sweet but not too sweet, and much more palatable than the Manhattans I’ve been drinking elsewhere lately.

Other beverage choices around the table included a Dark and Stormy made with rum, ginger beer and lime; a lovely floral St. Germain cocktail; and the Paloma Smash — a crush of La Cava Blanco, grapefruit and mint. I thought the Dark and Stormy tasted like a Coke with a bit of ginger after-kick.

My friend Gillian insists I mention the ice. The Dark and Stormy and the later Pimm’s Cup she ordered (a fresh punch of sorts comprised of gin, cucumber, lemon and ginger beer) held big oversized cubes that kept the drinks cold but melted slowly enough that they didn’t dilute the flavors. A small detail that makes a big difference.

If you like absinthe, you can find it here, although the stuff scares the crap out of me. The real-deal French variety is hallucinogenic and causes some really trippy reactions from what I’ve heard. Our waitress assured us the version they serve at the Libertine is toned down and “as legal as it can be in the U.S.” She said you really have to love the flavor of black licorice to enjoy it, and I don’t. No one at our table ordered any, but I would have liked to see someone at another table ask for some just so we could see the elaborate preparation process.

I’m curious which concept came first at the Libertine, the cocktails or the food. The small selection of a dozen and a half small plates is ideally suited to complement the drinks. You can certainly make a dinner out of the choices, but don’t expect full meal plates of oversized portions here. Each offering is a perfectly sized and packed-with-flavor appetizer. For our repast, we picked two items to share amongst the group and then each ordered another individual small plate or two of our own choosing.

The first thing I sought out on the menu was the bacon flight, something I’d caught prior wind of in a review I’d read. Not just an urban legend, there it was. We agreed to share that, along with the Manchego crostini. (I lobbied for the daily selection of deviled eggs, am putting that front and center for my next visit.)

Libertine’s bacon flight

But back to the bacon… this is NOT your grandpa’s greasy Jimmy Dean breakfast special. The Libertine bacon commands immediate respect, arriving in a silver goblet. The five or six strips come with a series of three garnish accompaniments — a pesto, tiny cubes of brunoised pickled carrot, and a spicy goat cheese spread. I can’t remember exactly what kind of bacon we got. I do recall the server saying something about a lamb variation and a double-smoked strip, but after that, it all blends into a deliciously salty haze. (There’s a very real possibility that my Seelbach Cocktail could have been kicking in here.) The crunchy carrots were my favorite adornment; the acidity was a great flavor component to balance out some of the fatty richness of the meat. One gal in our group who hates goat cheese kept going back for more of it on this dish, if that tells you anything about how good it was.

The crostini were ok, little toasts topped with artichoke and pine nuts buried under an avalanche of shredded Manchego cheese, but didn’t stand out as much as some of the other stuff we ate.

chicken pate and waffles

For my solo plate, I opted for the Gunthorp Farms chicken liver pate over waffles – Brown’s whimsical spin on the more traditional chicken and waffles you find at soul food eateries like my beloved Roscoe’s in Los Angeles. This was another dish I’d read about online and was intrigued by. The presentation was pretty awesome: two disks of pate on top of two small stacked waffles with a little bit of hot sauce on the bottom of the plate and a drizzle of bourbon syrup poured over tableside. Did I mention there was a little piece of crispy fried chicken skin on top? Oh yes, there was. I’ll fess up — I don’t have much experience with pate, and I can’t say in all honesty that this dish made me a fan. It was interesting to be sure, and I have no doubt the pate was top-notch, but I guess my palate just isn’t accustomed to the texture.

What else was there? Let’s see… the roasted mushroom salad with cauliflower puree and chickpeas looked and tasted delish.

duck meatballs over gnocchi

One member of our group ordered a duck meatballs over crispy potato gnocchi dish that she was very happy with, saying it was something meat-and-potato lovers would definitely like.

The beef tataki dish was sort of a seared carpaccio over arugula with fennel. It looked a lot like tuna, but was a little too rare for my taste. I wussed out and just nibbled an edge of the meat to taste it. The Proper Ham and Cheese sandwich was one of the more fairly straightforward choices. Gruyere and mornay sauce took the whole thing over the top into the realm of decadence, and the Smoking Goose Meatery-sourced ham was melt-in-your-mouth tender.

the one-eyed Jack

One of the biggest hits at the table was something called “One-Eyed Jack,” a toad-in-the-hole kind of thing with a egg nestled into a thick slice of grilled bread. It was served with fig butter and garlic confit, which sounds a little weird on paper, but was a fantastic combination when all put together. You’ve gotta really like garlic to enjoy this one, though. I only had one bite and the first thing hubby said to me when I got home was, “Wow. Garlic, huh?”

Small plate prices run anywhere from $6 for the radish plate to $15 for the oyster selection du jour. Many items hover in the $8 or $9 range, which seems totally fair for the quality and creativity involved.

The Libertine doesn’t offer any desserts, which is too bad. I would love to see what Brown would do here in this capacity. But whatever. I can’t wait to go back.

living it up at Libertine with the gals

For more information, visit:

http://www.libertineindy.com/

Libertine on Urbanspoon

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Nashville nosh

I graduated from Indiana University in the early 1990s, and Bloomington will always hold a special place in my heart, but I never really spent any time in nearby Nashville or Brown County except for an occasional drive-through on trips back home when I felt like taking the country route. When you consider how crazy scenic and charming the whole area is, this seems downright disrespectful. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to right my wrong.

beautiful Brown County State Park

Between stints of walking through the adorable shops of Nashville proper, horseback riding, journeying the annual artist studio and gardens tour through some of the most outerlying rural terrain, and an overnight stay at Abe Martin Lodge on the grounds of gorgeous Brown County State Park, I enjoyed some tasty meals.

Words that come to mind when I think of Nashville and Brown County: cute, small-town, old-fashioned, country, charming. Cutting-edge cuisine? Nope. But that’s perfectly ok. If you’re looking for fancy four-star meals full of frills and garnishes, keep on driving. If you’re in the mood for the kind of nostalgic, old-school eats you’ve probably grown up on (if you were born and raised in Indiana, that is), you’ve come to the right place.

Case in point — Hob Nob Corner is about as old-school as you can get in this neck of the woods. Literally. It’s housed in the Taggart Building at the corner of Main and Van Buren, the oldest commercial building in town and dating back to 1873 (the restaurant’s been operating here since 1973).

Hob Nob Corner Restaurant

These days, visitors flock for down-home breakfasts along the lines of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash, oatmeal and French toast. (I was surprised to see huevos rancheros on the menu, it was the only nod to ethnic food I noticed anywhere the entire weekend.) And of course, you can’t call yourself a real-deal breakfast joint in Indiana without serving classic biscuits and gravy. I’ll bet it’s good here, although I opted for the pancakes with bacon on the side.

Hob Nob pancakes

Hubby filled up on the basic breakfast of two eggs, toast and bacon, and added on a slice of country ham to boot cause that’s how he rolls.  (Hubby wants me to mention that he had just biked 70 miles from Indy to Nashville the day prior, and that’s why he needed the extra protein…) Everything was down-home delicious.

hubby’s Hob Nob brekkie

Hobnob Corner on Urbanspoon

For dinner, we visited Brown County’s hometown microbrewery, Big Woods Brewing Company. If we lived down here, I have a feeling this place would claim a lot of our time and money. Like most places in Nashville, the décor is all rustic wood lodge with high beamed ceilings. Big Woods is newer than most, open just since November 2009. The vibe feels a little like Thr3e Wise Men here in Indy, except Big Woods isn’t kid-friendly. The clientele is strictly 21 and up.

The food at Big Woods is probably the most new-fangled of any I saw in town. On the menu — a half dozen or so housemade microbrews (the refreshing Six-Foot Blonde was just our speed), along with a selection of pizzas, sandwiches and apps.

Big Woods Six Foot Blonde Ale

The spinach artichoke dip and Emily’s Garden veggie pizza we shared both arrived piping hot and loaded with super-fresh ingredients. Highly recommend.

Emily’s Garden pizza at Big Woods Brewing Company

Big Woods Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

As an IU grad, several people told me I HAD to make sure I visited that sandwich place… I thought they were speaking non-specifically, but no. The name of the restaurant is actually That Sandwich Place, and anyone with any amount of interest in IU basketball needs to put lunch or breakfast here on their Brown County itinerary.

Visiting this eatery is like worshipping at the church of Bobby Knight. The walls, counters, columns, ceilings — every possible surface is covered with memorabilia, some items ranging back as far as the early 1970s. Seems the restaurant opened around the same time Knight arrived in Bloomington and the owner remains a personal friend. Love him or hate him, Knight is an undeniably charismatic figure that demands attention. An oversized General doll in a glass case holds court (get it???) over the restaurant from its post by the register.

all hail, the General

Down a short flight of stairs, subterranean That Sandwich Place serves simple greasy-spoon breakfast and lunch fare. There’s not a ton of stuff to choose from, just a handful of sandwiches complemented by fries, cole slaw and deviled eggs, and a hi-calorie salad laden with ham, cheese and sunflower seeds. No joke, that’s what it’s called. They are not messing around with any diet food here. At least they’re upfront about it.

tenderloin platter at That Sandwich Place

Hubby and I split a Piggy Wiggy tenderloin platter. The thin crispy pork patty was obviously pre-formed, and reminded me of the kind of sandwich I grew up eating at the local drive-ins in Richmond. Good fries, too.

We ate with wide-eyed wonder, taking in the ambiance. Indiana, oh Indiana, we ARE all for you.

That Sandwich Place on Urbanspoon

Bon appetit, Brown County!

For more info:

http://www.browncounty.com/

http://www.browncounty.com/listing/hobnob-corner-restaurant

http://www.bigwoodsbeer.com/

(Can’t find a web site for That Sandwich Place. Guess you’ll just have to go there and see it for yourself.)

… and to all a good meal!

This Christmas has been one of relaxation in our household, which is not a bad thing at all considering the busy year it’s been. The week has been very low-key, filled with cooking, shopping and lots of cozy fires in the fireplace. Nice.

During the past 10 days or so, I’ve been busy making holiday treats of various shapes and sizes — milk chocolate pots de crème for our Christmas dinner finale, white chocolate Oreo fudge and peppermint meringues to name a few. I found this recipe for cookies and crème fudge on allrecipes.com and have been making the heck out of it this season. With just three ingredients to worry about, it’s super easy to make, looks very pretty all packaged up in a holiday tin and tastes awesome. For the last batch I made, I used the holiday Oreos with the red filling, thinking they would look beautiful nestled into the white chocolate fudge. However, the color ended up bleeding out into the fudge, turning it sort of an alarming shade of red, but I threw in a little peppermint extract and called it festive. A brilliant and quick-thinking move on my part, if I do say so myself.

Since it was originally just going to be a quiet Christmas Day with hubby, the toddler and me, I didn’t go overboard on my dinner plans. My dad ended up joining us, which was fine, but for once, I was secretly glad not to have to cook a big meal for a tableful of folks.

For our main course, I ended up buying a turkey breast, which I stuffed with lemon slices and thyme sprigs and threw into the crockpot. It was delicious – moist and juicy with great savory flavor, and I used the stock that was released to make a scrumptious gravy. For sides, we had wild rice with dried cherries, apricots and almonds, and a panful of Brussels sprouts that I sautéed with garlic and olive oil, then steamed and topped with bacon. I’m telling ya, if you don’t like Brussels sprouts, I can convert you. Really, you can’t go wrong with almost any vegetable by sautéing it in olive oil and garlic, then topping with bacon or cheese. Alternately, roasting it in the oven until it turns brown and crispy works, too. Try it next time you have broccoli or asparagus on hand. Yummy.

Christmas dinner spread

Hubby really wanted to make Yorkshire puddings, something we’ve talked about for ages but never actually tried. For non-British readers, Yorkshire puddings aren’t really puddings at all, they’re like a popover/dinner roll thing that caves in the middle to create a little bowl of dough, into which you then spoon a big ladleful of gravy or jus. You see them often served abroad at carvery lunches in England or with roast-and-potatoes-type meals.

I looked up a few recipes and thought they all sounded deceptively simple. Hm. This immediately made me somewhat suspicious, but I was willing to give it a try. The batter is just milk, egg and flour, stirred together and left to sit for 30 minutes or one hour, depending on the recipe you’re using.

The next step is to coat your muffin tins with oil or a little of the drippings from your roast (I used bacon grease), spoon in a little batter and off you go. The puddings are supposed to puff up as they bake, then collapse in the middle as they cool to create the bowl shape. Mine didn’t collapse; they just stayed puffy in the middle. They tasted good, but there was no way you’d have been able to use them as edible gravy vessels. I’ll try them again, though, maybe throwing in some parmesan cheese and herbs next time.

the failed Yorkshire puddings

I spent a good chunk of my Christmas loot on new cookbooks! Shock of shocks, I did not previously own a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, but I do now. Along with an awesome slow cooker recipe book I found on the bargain rack for $5, and a series of Culinaria books on Germany, France and Italy. What could be more perfect! They contain not just recipes, but tons of cultural information and profiles on various cities and regions. I can’t wait to dig into them.

Elsewhere in the week, we’ve been talking about making paella for awhile. I researched online and came up with a Gordon Ramsay version that sounded promising. Gordon definitely hooked us up on the shepherd’s pie, so I figured his paella would fit the bill as well. Plus, he’s looking kinda hot now that he finally got those weird craggy lines fixed on his chin… His recipe called for a slew of shellfish, which I had to leave out if I had any hope of hubby eating it at all. And the onion as well, of course, but that goes without saying.

Gordon’s paella calls for rice, tomato, spices, chicken, chorizo and some veg. That’s about it, really. Nothing too intimidating. I’d never cooked with chorizo before, and I had exactly one kind to choose from during my shopping excursion at Kroger, so I hoped for the best. It looks like a regular cased sausage, but I found as I sliced it up and tossed it into my pan, it completely melted away into the sauce. It definitely left a kicky flavor behind, but no chunks of nicely browned sausage to bite into like I was hoping for. Alas. Next time I’ll know to use a hard sausage or include some chunks of ham as well for texture. Everything else came together nicely. It was really just exactly like a risotto, which I’ve made many times over.

As I was stirring hot stock into the rice, chicken and veggies, I was struck that many different cultures share a go-to chicken and rice comfort food just like this. In America, what is possibly more comforting than a steamy bowl of chicken and noodles? In Italy, you’ve got risotto; in France, coq au vin; in India, chicken tikka masala. There’s arroz con pollo, pilaf, dumplings, chow mein, you name it. Wherever there is chicken, there is chicken and rice.

The paella turned out very spicy, but good. We enjoyed it with a bowl of olives, garlic bread and some Manchego cheese (that was the only disappointment of the meal). I stirred through a handful of shrimp into my own bowl, which added a lot, I thought.

Paella

my bowl

Would love to make paella again, this time with all the seafood… maybe a girls’ night dinner in the offing?? Although I still need to have the gals over for an Italian spread inspired by our trip to Milan. I’ve already got that one all planned out in my head – bruschetta, pasta, grilled steak with parmesan and arugula, and tiramisu for dessert.

The New Year looms ahead. I’ve been writing my blog now for a whole year! Here’s hoping my few and faithful readers have enjoyed hearing about my food exploits as much as I’ve enjoyed experiencing them. Happy 2010!!!

Where's the boeuf?

Last week marked my second attempt at Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon recipe (and will I ever learn to spell “bourguignon” without having to look it up on Google?). There are two things you should know about preparing a Julia Child recipe. One, it will taste delicious. Two, it will be a pain in the ass. The only other Julia Child recipe I can recall ever making is a cheese souffle, which I assure you easily met these two criteria.

My first boeuf bourguignon recipe attempt was about a month and a half ago. After seeing “Julie & Julia,” my friend and sous chef extraordinaire Gillian and I decided to host a French-inspired dinner party for several girlfriends. I knew Boeuf Bourguignon was the entree I wanted to make; G tackled a Julia chocolate almond cake. We rounded out the spread with Brie, baguette, salad and tons of red wine.

The boeuf started off innocuously enough. The base of the stew is the same one I’ve used for several other dishes as of late – Gordon Ramsay’s shepherd’s pie and Melissa D’Arabian’s braised pork come to mind. When you’ve got a good thing going, apparently chefs want to apply it to as many different kinds of meat as possible. Garlic, onions, carrot, tomato paste, thyme (my herb garden produced an abundance this year, so I’m happy for chances to use it as often as possible), red wine and beef stock. Insert meat, cover, braise for a couple hours and you will eat WELL. It’s a cheap concept, too. Beef stew meat is one of the most affordable items you can buy at the butcher’s counter, and if you use a Charles Shaw Shiraz (which is HIGHLY drinkable, trust me, I speak from experience), you can get away with spending about $3 for the wine.

Anyway, back to the recipe… Julia’s version calls for the addition of bacon, a note I found intriguing. However, she instructs you to boil the bacon for 10 minutes first before browning it for the stew. So there’s one dirty pot right off the bat. I’m not sure what the reasoning is – if anyone owns a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, are there any liner notes of explanation?? I seem to recall something about making the flavor of the bacon less overwhelming, as if that’s a BAD thing? Anyway, not one to argue with the master, I boiled. Then browned. No biggie, I suppose.

A useful tip I learned – dry your meat completely with paper towels before browning it in oil or fat. I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, and it really did make a huge difference. The meat browned up quickly and beautifully, leaving behind tons of those yummy brown bits on the bottom of the pan that eventually incorporate into your sauce and make it that much better.

So I browned the meat, then the vegetables. Keep in mind, you’re constantly removing whatever you’ve just cooked to another dish while you prepare the rest. More dirty dishes. But that’s ok. Once everything is browned, you dump it all into your casserole dish. Then you pour your red wine and stock into the browning pan, scraping up every bit of those brown bits as you go. Pour the sauce over the meat and veg, cover it and throw it in the oven for about two hours. When it comes out, the meat is almost obscenely tender and the sauce smells so good, you’ll want to dab a little behind each ear. Mix in some sauteed mushrooms and there ya go. Not exactly a user-friendly dish, but wow, is it good.

Last week, hubby was returning from a business trip and I decided boeuf bourguignon would be a nice way to welcome him home. He was still a little pissed off that I included onions in my first version for the gals, immediately disqualifying him from any leftovers. Not that there were any… This time, however, I took a few short cuts. For starters, there wouldn’t be any onions to chop or worry about. I also decided to make the whole dish in the crock pot. I still had to boil the bacon and brown everything on the stove top, but with the crock pot, I knew I could let it go for awhile in case hubby’s flight was delayed and not worry about anything overcooking. I dare say it was every bit as good as the traditional method.

Julia suggests serving the stew with boiled potatoes, but even after four years of marriage, hubby still doesn’t trust me to boil potatoes (he’s Irish, what can I say?). I opted for buttered egg noodles instead. The overall effect turned out to be a fabulously rich beef and noodles. We froze the scant leftovers and I zapped a portion for myself tonight in the microwave. Nice thing about stews, they reheat perfectly.

So if you’ve got a few hours and a bunch of pots and pans, I recommend this recipe. You can easily find it online, and I have to say, it really is worth the trouble. Make Julia proud.

Boeuf Bourguignon over noodles, second time around

Boeuf Bourguignon over noodles, second time around

Where’s the boeuf?

Last week marked my second attempt at Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon recipe (and will I ever learn to spell “bourguignon” without having to look it up on Google?). There are two things you should know about preparing a Julia Child recipe. One, it will taste delicious. Two, it will be a pain in the ass. The only other Julia Child recipe I can recall ever making is a cheese souffle, which I assure you easily met these two criteria.

My first boeuf bourguignon recipe attempt was about a month and a half ago. After seeing “Julie & Julia,” my friend and sous chef extraordinaire Gillian and I decided to host a French-inspired dinner party for several girlfriends. I knew Boeuf Bourguignon was the entree I wanted to make; G tackled a Julia chocolate almond cake. We rounded out the spread with Brie, baguette, salad and tons of red wine.

The boeuf started off innocuously enough. The base of the stew is the same one I’ve used for several other dishes as of late – Gordon Ramsay’s shepherd’s pie and Melissa D’Arabian’s braised pork come to mind. When you’ve got a good thing going, apparently chefs want to apply it to as many different kinds of meat as possible. Garlic, onions, carrot, tomato paste, thyme (my herb garden produced an abundance this year, so I’m happy for chances to use it as often as possible), red wine and beef stock. Insert meat, cover, braise for a couple hours and you will eat WELL. It’s a cheap concept, too. Beef stew meat is one of the most affordable items you can buy at the butcher’s counter, and if you use a Charles Shaw Shiraz (which is HIGHLY drinkable, trust me, I speak from experience), you can get away with spending about $3 for the wine.

Anyway, back to the recipe… Julia’s version calls for the addition of bacon, a note I found intriguing. However, she instructs you to boil the bacon for 10 minutes first before browning it for the stew. So there’s one dirty pot right off the bat. I’m not sure what the reasoning is – if anyone owns a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, are there any liner notes of explanation?? I seem to recall something about making the flavor of the bacon less overwhelming, as if that’s a BAD thing? Anyway, not one to argue with the master, I boiled. Then browned. No biggie, I suppose.

A useful tip I learned – dry your meat completely with paper towels before browning it in oil or fat. I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, and it really did make a huge difference. The meat browned up quickly and beautifully, leaving behind tons of those yummy brown bits on the bottom of the pan that eventually incorporate into your sauce and make it that much better.

So I browned the meat, then the vegetables. Keep in mind, you’re constantly removing whatever you’ve just cooked to another dish while you prepare the rest. More dirty dishes. But that’s ok. Once everything is browned, you dump it all into your casserole dish. Then you pour your red wine and stock into the browning pan, scraping up every bit of those brown bits as you go. Pour the sauce over the meat and veg, cover it and throw it in the oven for about two hours. When it comes out, the meat is almost obscenely tender and the sauce smells so good, you’ll want to dab a little behind each ear. Mix in some sauteed mushrooms and there ya go. Not exactly a user-friendly dish, but wow, is it good.

Last week, hubby was returning from a business trip and I decided boeuf bourguignon would be a nice way to welcome him home. He was still a little pissed off that I included onions in my first version for the gals, immediately disqualifying him from any leftovers. Not that there were any… This time, however, I took a few short cuts. For starters, there wouldn’t be any onions to chop or worry about. I also decided to make the whole dish in the crock pot. I still had to boil the bacon and brown everything on the stove top, but with the crock pot, I knew I could let it go for awhile in case hubby’s flight was delayed and not worry about anything overcooking. I dare say it was every bit as good as the traditional method.

Julia suggests serving the stew with boiled potatoes, but even after four years of marriage, hubby still doesn’t trust me to boil potatoes (he’s Irish, what can I say?). I opted for buttered egg noodles instead. The overall effect turned out to be a fabulously rich beef and noodles. We froze the scant leftovers and I zapped a portion for myself tonight in the microwave. Nice thing about stews, they reheat perfectly.

So if you’ve got a few hours and a bunch of pots and pans, I recommend this recipe. You can easily find it online, and I have to say, it really is worth the trouble. Make Julia proud.

Boeuf Bourguignon over noodles, second time around

Boeuf Bourguignon over noodles, second time around

Two for one

Yesterday, my lovely friend Laura and her lovely sisters hosted not one, but two bridal showers. Yes, on the same day! The first was a brunch for their youngest sister Julie, and the second was a Mexican-themed cocktail party for their future sister-in-law Rachel. I offered to do the food for both… needless to say, I’ve been a busy girl these past few days!

Everything went fine until my water softener started causing problems on Friday, right in the middle of all my food preparation. Fortunately, Laura allowed me to invade her kitchen in the middle of all of her own preparations to get some things done. My dad arrived that night to babysit, and it was smooth sailing from that point on.

The food turned out great, I couldn’t have been more pleased! The brunch menu consisted of four different kinds of quiche – broccoli cheese, spinach feta, sausage with red pepper and onion, and ham and cheese – bacon, vanilla bean syruped fruit skewers and mini cupcakes decorated with raspberries and kiwi to coordinate with the bride’s chosen colors of hot pink and pale green.

I went home in between showers to recuperate a little and spend a few minutes with the baby before packing up and heading back for the second shift. The Mexican menu was beef and cheese empanadas (thanks for the recipe, Jen!), gazpacho in chilled espresso cups, cheese jalapeno corn muffins, crudite with dip, nacho chips with cheese, salsa, fresh guacamole and frozen key lime tarts for dessert.

Everyone seemed happy with the food at both parties, and I was happy Laura and her sisters were on hand to pitch in when I needed assistance! All in all, a good time was had by all.

the quiche/bacon buffet

the quiche/bacon buffet

spinach feta quiche

spinach feta quiche

fruit skewers

fruit skewers

mini raspberry and kiwi cupcakes

mini raspberry and kiwi cupcakes

the Mexi-buffet

the Mexi-buffet

crudite with jalapeno ranch dip

crudite with jalapeno ranch dip

beef empanadas

beef empanadas

gazpacho cups

gazpacho cups

chips and dips

chips and dips

mini jalapeno corn muffins

mini jalapeno corn muffins

Happy new year!

New year, a new resolution – 2009 finds me making a career change. After nearly two decades of toiling away in one form of journalism or another, I’m now embarking on a new pursuit – gainful employment in the field of culinary arts. Since moving around and motherhood have curtailed my plans for a formal culinary education, I’ve decided to wing it and trust the training I’ve had thus far (combined with a passion for all things food) will carry me through.

A little about me – I’m a 38-year-old, sane (I think) wife and mother living in Indianapolis. Married to a wonderful Irishman for three years (Patrick the Paddy), I have an adorable stepson named Isaac and Michael, my gorgeous baby boy. Patrick works in auto racing and likes to move around. A lot. We have lived in Indiana and Sonoma CA, survived a 12,000-mile road trip together across the U.S. and Canada, completed a six-week trial cohabitation in Germany, made several journeys to visit my in-laws in Ireland (the site of one of our two weddings), and taken short trips to England, Wales and Scotland. Whew. It makes me tired just writing all that.

But back to the food… I love to cook, I love to eat, and I love to write about it. Outside my passion for writing, the only other thing I could see myself pursuing careerwise is something related to cooking. With the current state of print media, my freelance writing clients are dropping like flies, so here I am. Ready to get this cooking party started. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty good at it. My catering business cards are in the works and my first recipe sampling/networking party is in two weeks, at which time I will attempt to harangue my friends into hiring me for business lunches and bridal showers. In the meantime, I will amuse myself by chronicling my thoughts on a variety of food-related issues as I wait for those lucrative cookbook contracts and/or television deals to start rolling in.

So, let’s get started. The other day, hubby and I had brunch at one of my favorite Indianapolis eateries – Zest! Exciting Food Creations. Four words. Crème brulee French toast.

Now, let me preface my review by saying that I’m a sugar-in-the-morning kind of gal. Muffins, donuts, pancakes — bring it on, and Zest’s French toast is an ideal way to get my sugar buzz up and running for the day.

Zest snuggles into an unassuming little strip mall just off the Monon Trail on 54th Street. We ambled in around 11:30 a.m., baby in tow, just in time to beat the post-church crowd. Each table is covered with sheets of white butcher paper and holds a small glass cup of crayons, allowing hungry patrons and their kids to a chance show off artistic skills while waiting for their food. A charming touch.

I’m in the middle of sketching what I consider to be a rather disarming self-portrait when it arrives, looking and smelling absolutely decadent. I give Patrick’s quite respectable breakfast panini a courtesy glance and a “hm, that looks good,” but really, all I want to do is get a bite of that steaming French toast into my mouth as quickly as possible.

This isn’t like any griddle-cooked French toast I’ve ever had before, rather, it’s two slabs of pillowy, custardy bread pudding-like confection. A shatteringly thin glaze of burnt sugar gives the whole thing a crunchy crust to offset the creamy mouth-feel of the dish. A couple slices of thick bacon come alongside and, as if any more sugar is needed here, a small cup of maple syrup to really gild the lily.

Patrick’s fork sneaks its way toward my plate to see what all the fuss is about. Then again. I swipe a bite of his eggs to get even, but he’s too busy savoring my food to notice. (When we were dating, Patrick insisted on making me order for him in restaurants because he said whatever I got usually turned out to be better than what he’d chosen on his own.)

Patrick always eats faster than I do, then freely helps himself to whatever’s left on my plate, whether I’m finished or not. He polishes off his sandwich, then reaches over and cuts off a large wedge of my remaining French toast for himself. I give him a dirty look as I proceed to polish off every remaining crumb. He looks at me with a somewhat sheepish expression.

“I didn’t think you were going to be able to eat that much,” he says.

It’s not so much that I’m that hungry, it’s just that it’s that good. Try it and see for yourself.

The evening marked an experiment in bread making. Pizza dough, more specifically. There are several food items I would like to perfect my skills in making, bread being one of them. I kneaded out a batch of dough by hand (no bullshit bread-o-matic machines in my house, thank you very much!), let it rise in a bowl on the warm stove, then punched it down and rolled it out. There’s something wonderful about the sight and smell of rising bread dough. It’s reaffirmation that things are naturally working the way they are supposed to and all is right with the world.

The pizza turned out well, in spite of me rolling out the crust a little bit too thin, which turned it soggy under the weight of the sauce and other schwack. (Next time, I’ll precook the crust a little before adding the toppings.) I attempted to recreate the pizza salamis we enjoyed while living in Germany… thin-crusted pies with a scant coating of tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella cheese, crispy salami slices broiled on top and torn fresh basil. Although my version didn’t quite look like what we got abroad, it still tasted pretty darn good.

Happy 2009! Cheer and bon appetit!

memories of Germany...

memories of Germany...